Voting Signals and GTD

June 14, 2009

Robin Hanson over at the Overcoming Bias blog has a post about What Voting Signals. He links to a NY Times article that describes a change in Switzerland in which every “…eligible Swiss citizen began to automatically receive a ballot in the mail, which could then be completed and returned by mail.” The result of this natural experiment was that the voting rate unexpectedly declined.

Since voting by mail at your leisure is assumed to be so much more convenient than going to vote in person an alternative explanation for the decline is required. The proposed answer is that voting is a form of signaling, that is, you vote because you will be seen voting (or not voting) by members of your community and people generally want to signal that they are a member in good standing. Since voting by mail is anonymous it lacks signaling.

I don’t buy it. It is not that I object to signaling as an explanation for various observed behaviors. I generally think signaling is very real. My objection is in the assumption that voting by mail is more convenient than voting in person on election day. The critical factor is not effort, but memory. The question is not whether one process requires less effort, less time, or less cost, the question is whether one process has the necessary elements to make it easy to remember to complete the task.

For those that are familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) book/approach, voting in person on a specific day has all kinds of natural ticklers that help you remember to complete the task, many of them social (think media and water cooler discussions at work). Voting by mail does not and has many built-in pit falls that make it very likely you will forget. Even if you were to do a survey of vote-by-mail voters that forgot to follow-up, I suspect that most would make up an excuse to account for not voting rather than admit that they dropped the ball. I think this is a common Burning House moment named after a famous experiment in which split-brain patients make up explanations for their choices:

P.S. was shown two pictures of houses, aligned down a central axis. The houses were identical in all ways, except one house had its left side on fire. The visual information from the left side goes only to the right side of the brain so the language dominant left-hemisphere does not have access to it. P.S. reported that there was no difference at all between the two houses. However, when asked in which of the 2 she would live, P.S. consistently chose the house that was not burning. This test has been performed many times but what is even more interesting is when patients are asked why they prefer one house over another.

“P.S. deemed ‘silly’ the task of choosing between 2 ‘identical’ houses. However, other studies provide this information and report a variety of responses at debriefing. For instance, a patient described by Manning and Kartsounis (1993) chose the non-burning house confabulating that it had an extra fireplace…Another patient described by Bisiach and Rusconi (1990) consistently chose the ‘burning’ house, considering it more ‘spacious’ on the burning side, where the contour of the flames actually enlarged the shape of the house, an example of choice based on an implicit misinterpretation of the difference. In a group of 13 neglect patients (Doricchi et al. 1997), responses motivating correct implicit choices of the ‘non-burning house’ were equally distributed into two categories: 1) ‘there is no specific reason for my choice, the 2 houses are the same anyway,

So back to snail mail and GTD. The key to GTD is having a “trusted system” that ensures that the actions you need to do are captured and that your system will ensure you will complete the task by the required deadline. I suspect that most people in Switzerland that successfully voted by mail had a personal system in place that allowed them to complete the task at hand. I doubt that very many people will immediately throw their voter card in the garbage/recycling because they have no intention of voting. Most people intend to complete the task but some people are better at following through than others. This is not even a organized vs. unorganized personality thing. It really comes down to your routine when it comes to snail mail. If your mail ends up in a pile someplace with all but the topmost envelope out of sight, there is a good chance that you will not vote.


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2 Responses to “Voting Signals and GTD”

  1. Robin Hanson Says:

    If you look at the added to my post you’ll see the source was not reliable.


  2. Little off topic but I browse this blog often and the thought just sprung in my head (being the impulsive gal that I am) so I’m just going to ask everyone.

    While I’m sat typing this I’m shuddering in a very thick jumper and thick socks with the heating on as a result of -8C!! I now live in a reasonably spacious open plan apartment and it just doesnt heat. I presume some of you are in a similar position which is why I asked.

    Anyway I’ve been investigating oil filled radiators for under my desk so wondering if any of you have one and are they worth buying, what’s best manufacturer and stuff? Thanks :-) xx


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